Top Sleepers for 2006
Roger Rotter / FOXSports.com
Some fantasy starters are ready to become elite stars. They're ready to take the next step to dominate at their position. Last season, Carson Palmer, Thomas Jones, LaMont Jordan, Santana Moss and Larry Fitzgerald became major fantasy studs.
These five stand a strong chance of jumping into the top 10 at their fantasy position.
Fantasy Breakthrough Stars
1. Reuben Droughns, RB, Cleveland
The toughest aspect for an NFL starting running back may be staying healthy for all 16 games. Droughns started all 16 games and finished with the league's 11th-most rushing yards (1,236). Two years ago, he started 15 games for the Broncos and ran for similar yardage with 1,240 yards. He's averaged 292 carries in the past two seasons after registering the league's 10th-most carries (309) this past season. He's shown he can handle the full-time rushing duties.
He's also displayed receiving prowess by gaining the league's sixth-most receiving yards (369) for a running back. This gave him the league's eighth-most total yards (1,601). He fell short on touchdowns scoring only two, but that was the result of Cleveland's worst-scoring offense that gave him few touchdown chances. He has the ability to score, registering eight as a Bronco in 2004.
The maturation of quarterback Charlie Frye and the expected improvement of the Browns offense in coach Romeo Crennel's second year will lend Droughns more scoring chances. He can arrive as a top-10 running back by matching last year's stats with additional scores. He's shown he can handle the rushing and receiving load of a featured running back. Now all he needs are scoring chances.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Rudi Johnson (1,458 rushing yards and 12 TDs)
2. Roy Williams, WR, Detroit
Despite the Lions' shaky quarterback situation, Williams finished the season's second half by scoring the second-most touchdowns (7) among wide receivers in the last eight games. After missing three games with a bruised quadriceps, Williams returned to start the final eight games. He also placed 20th among the wide receivers with 500 yards and finished as one of fantasy's top receivers during that stretch.
This was impressive considering he played with two different quarterbacks. Jeff Garcia started three games while Joey Harrington had five starts. If Detroit receives consistency from a veteran quarterback, Williams will emerge as a top-15 fantasy wideout. However, the Lions may opt to draft a quarterback early. That would obviously hurt Williams' stats if the rookie starts.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Chris Chambers (82 catches, 1,118 yards and 11 TDs)
3. Cadillac Williams, RB, Tampa Bay
Chosen as the No. 5 overall pick, this rookie runner received many accolades after his first three weeks. He set the NFL record for the most rushing yards (434) in a player's first three weeks and became the first runner to rush for 100 yards in his first three games. His overall stats were impressive enough to receive NFL Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year and a bonus of $150,000.
But fantasy-wise, his weekly stats show a different story. His fantasy owners didn't cash on his many disappointing weekly performances. After his record-setting performance, he was given an absurd 37 carries and didn't recover from the excessive workload until later in the season. He ran for fewer than 30 yards five times, effectively destroying many of his owner's chance at victories. He also missed two games with foot and hamstring injuries.
Simply put, Williams was not ready to handle a 16-game featured back role in his rookie season after sharing carries with rookie Ronnie Brown at Auburn. Still, Williams showed flashes of being a fantasy No. 1 back in his rookie season and only will improve his ability to endure a full season of 20-plus carries per game. Expect Jon Gruden to monitor his workload more.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Thomas Jones (1,335 rushing yards and nine TDs)
4. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
He made the leap to a strong statistical quarterback in the playoffs, throwing for an average of 227 passing yards and 2.3 touchdowns in the first three postseason games. He's comfortable reading defenses and can orchestrate more complicated passing attacks. After two seasons of starting, he's ready to become a top-10 fantasy quarterback. With Pittsburgh's strong offensive line, strong running game and quality receivers, Roethlisberger will keep improving in his third season of starting.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Matt Hasselbeck (3,383 yards and 24 TDs and 124 rushing yards and one TD)
5. Lee Evans, WR, Buffalo
He's averaged 48 catches for 793 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons. Last year, he worked with two different quarterbacks and still managed to post a respectable year. Consistency at quarterback will help him avoid games of poor yardage. He had eight contests with 27 or fewer yards. There's a chance that Eric Moulds may not be re-signed. If so, Evans will likely receive more passes his way. Next season, with or without Moulds and a stable quarterback, he can reach 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit scores.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Hines Ward (69 catches, 975 yards and 11 TDs)
Sleepers lurk on every fantasy corner, but which ones are most likely to erupt on the scene? The following are most ready to become fantasy starters at these critical fantasy positions of quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
Who will become the 2006 Eli Manning or Drew Bledsoe?
1. Brad Johnson, Minnesota
There's talk that Daunte Culpepper may not return to the Vikings in 2006. If so, that would likely keep Johnson as the starter. He threw 11 scores in nine starts last season and was effective running an offense with short and intermediate passes. New coach Ray Childress guided one of the league's top passing offenses in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb. Johnson would be effective in the West Coast offense. He's already had great success when he played in Tampa Bay for Jon Gruden running a similar system. When he led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl win in the 2003 season, he passed for 3,049 yards and 22 touchdowns. The next season he threw for 3,811 yards and 26 touchdowns. He can be a No. 2 fantasy quarterback throwing to talented receivers Koren Robinson, Travis Taylor and Nate Burleson.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Drew Bledsoe (3,639 yards and 23 TDs)
2. Chris Simms, Tampa Bay
Throwing for 10 touchdowns in 10 starts isn't impressive, but that was his first season of being the starting quarterback in meaningful action. With a full off-season to prepare as the starter, Simms should make rapid improvement. He's anchored by a talented running attack led by Cadillac Williams and has a top No. 1 receiver, Joey Galloway, to utilize. The Bucs may strengthen their receiving corps via free agency.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Jake Plummer (3,759 yards and 20 TDs)
3. Rex Grossman, Chicago
He's missed 28 starts in the last two seasons. However, the fourth-year vet will be Chicago's starting quarterback next season. He displayed accuracy, sound mechanics, arm strength, poise and pocket awareness in his two starts last season. He threw an impressive 41 attempts in the playoff loss. The Bears usually don't entrust their quarterback to throw that many times in a competitive game. This bodes well for his fantasy value. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner likes to complement a strong, physical running attack with a vertical passing game. Grossman will have solid possession receiver Muhsin Muhammad and speedy Bernard Berrian and Mark Bradley (if he recovers from his knee injury). He's sat on the sidelines enough to learn defensive coverages. Now he'll show what he learned on the field.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Jake Plummer (3,759 yards and 20 TDs)
4. Kyle Boller, Baltimore
After missing six games with a turf toe, Boller returned to throw for 11 touchdowns in eight starts, including three games with three touchdown passes. That was only two shy of his 2004 season total (13). If Boller continues to progress, he could be a legitimate fantasy backup. He has a proven No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason, an emerging Mark Clayton and one of the league's best pass-catching tight ends Todd Heap. If Baltimore transforms to a more balanced offense with fewer rushing attempts, Boller could be set for a breakthrough fantasy season.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Jake Plummer (2,996 yards and 18 TDs)
5. Charlie Frye, Cleveland
He threw five touchdowns in four starts last season and showed he could be a solid NFL quarterback. As he matures into the position, the young Browns offense will also develop along him. If Antonio Bryant (free agent) and Braylon Edwards (recovering from torn ACL) return, they'll provide Frye two exciting talented receivers. Kellen Winslow, Jr. is expected to return successfully from his devastating injures. If those three question marks are turned into exclamations, expect Frye to flourish in Cleveland sooner than later.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Gus Frerotte (2,996 yards and 18 TDs)
6. Billy Volek, Tennessee
It remains to be seen who signs Volek in the off-season. He was unremarkable this season, throwing for just 198 yards and one touchdown in his only start. However, he was brilliant in '04 when he replaced the injured Steve McNair for a string of games. He averaged 287 passing yards and threw 18 touchdowns in eight starts, including two games of 426 yards and four TDs, and 492 yards and four TDs. Given the right chance, he's shown he can be very productive.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Gus Frerotte (2,996 yards and 18 touchdowns)
7. David Garrard, Jacksonville
If Byron Leftwich becomes injured again, watch for Garrard to post more sterling performances. In his first four starts at the end of the season, Garrard threw four touchdown passes, ran for two scores and registered a career-high 292 passing yards. He offers the Jaguars another dimension with his running skills, making the offense tougher to defense. The immobile Leftwich has one of the league's most talented No. 2 quarterbacks closing on him.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Ben Roethlisberger (2,385 yards and 17 touchdowns and three rushing TDs)
8. Kelly Holcomb, Buffalo
The value of the 11-year vet depends on J.P. Losman's ability to lead an effective offense. If Losman is given the starting position and fails miserably again early in the season, then expect Holcomb to be given the reins quicker this time. It was a no-brainer to start Holcomb last season and give Losman more time to develop. But the damage was done, costing a GM his job. Look for the Bills' running game to be stronger with the continued development of the offense line and featured back Willis McGahee. This will help a veteran quarterback like Holcomb orchestrate an effective passing game led by receiver Lee Evans.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Steve McNair (3,161 yards and 16 touchdowns)
9. Josh McCown, Arizona
He offers the most potential of these sleeper quarterbacks as the backup on the league's most prolific passing offense. He averaged 279 yards and threw nine touchdowns in his six starts, including games of 385 and 398 yards. Kurt Warner has battled injuries in the last four seasons, missing 35 games. He missed 2 1/2 games last season with a groin injury. Warner turns 35 for the '06 season and is susceptible to missing games with his injury history and age. McCown will likely be called to into action. He'll provide fantasy owners a boost in points if they're struggling at quarterback.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Marc Bulger in eight starts (2,297 yards and 14 touchdowns)
10. Andrew Walter, Oakland
If the Raiders go to a youth movement, Walter may be first in line. He has fantastic size at 6-6 and has a strong arm, making him well-suited for Oakland's deep passing attack. After setting records at Arizona State, he's learned on the sidelines in his rookie season He has this off-season to prepare better for the rigors and complexities of the NFL.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Kelly Holcomb (1,509 yards and 10 touchdowns)
Who will become this year's Thomas Jones, Willie Parker or Chris Brown?
1. Samkon Gado, Green Bay
If the Packers decide to not re-sign free agents Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, Gado becomes the leading candidate to be Green Bay's featured back. He averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry in eight games, better than Green's 3.3 yards and Davenport's 3.5 yards. Gado exploded for three 100-yard games, averaging 20 carries for 128 yards and scoring four touchdowns. In all, he scored seven touchdowns and showed he could be a hard-nosed runner. New coach Mike McCarthy will likely continue to use Green Bay's West Coast offense, which features the running back extensively. However, he has durability concerns, missing the last two games with a knee injury.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Julius Jones (993 yards and five TDs)
2. Frank Gore, San Francisco
Coach Norv Turner is a boon for any starting running back. Under his guidance, Emmitt Smith, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and LaMont Jordan have produced stellar fantasy seasons. He utilizes running backs in goal-line situations, providing high touchdown totals for them. Gore impressed with his toughness and elusiveness in his rookie season. He was more productive than veteran Kevan Barlow, leading the 49ers in rushing yards (608) despite having 49 fewer carries than Barlow. He averaged a robust 4.8 yards compared to Barlow's paltry 3.3 yards. Gore was thought to have a chance at unseating Barlow in training camp last season, but ran into injuries. This season should be different.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Julius Jones (993 yards and five TDs)
3. Greg Jones, Jacksonville
Fred Taylor went back to his injury-filled days, missing five games with a knee injury. The Jaguars may opt to let the free agent sign with another team. If that happens, Jones becomes the favorite to be the featured back. LaBrandon Toefield would also be considered for the starting position. However, Jones has more power and showed he could withstand the hits taken as the starter. When Taylor missed four games, Jones started and ran for 364 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 23 carries for 91 yards and a respectable 3.9 average. One downside is that he may have his goal-line carries taken away by Toefield. Coach Jack Del Rio seems to prefer having a goal-line back, regardless of who is the starting runner.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Ronnie Brown (907 yards and five TDs)
4. Marion Barber, Dallas
Julius Jones is productive when he usually plays, but he's missed 11 games in his first two seasons. If Jones becomes injured again, Barber has shown he could be productive. As the Dallas' young offensive line improves, so will the running game. When receiving 15 or more carries, Barber has averaged 89 rushing yards for a robust 4.5 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns in those four games.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Ricky Williams (743 yards and six TDs)
5. Eric Shelton, Carolina
DeShaun Foster has the talent to be a top runner but lacks the durability to be a full-time runner. The fragile vet has missed 33 regular-season games in four seasons because of injuries. A preseason knee injury knocked him out for the entire rookie year and a broken collarbone forced him to miss 12 games in 2004. A broken fibula in the postseason forces him to recover again from his third season-ending injury. The Panthers may not re-sign him, and if they do, Foster stands a good chance of missing more games with injuries. Though second-year vet Shelton missed last season with a foot injury, he has the strength and running ability to be an everydown power back in Carolina's physical running attack. At the very least, Shelton (6-3 and 248 pounds) could be an effective goal-line back similar to the Giants' Brandon Jacobs.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Samkon Gado (582 yards and seven TDs)
6. Ryan Moats, Philadelphia
Brian Westbrook is expected to successfully return from a Lisfranc sprain, according to Andy Reid. He gave a recovery timetable by March to be ready to play, but recovery varies by players with this injury. While Westbrook doesn't need surgery, it still took strong safety Brian Dawkins a year to recover fully without surgery as well. With the chance that Westbrook may not be ready for the season opener, second-year vet Ryan Moats would be an adequate replacement. Moats displayed big-play ability as a rookie, rushing for touchdowns of 40, 18 and 59 yards in his first two games of replacing Westbrook. The Eagles offense will receive a lift with the return of Donovan McNabb, providing Eagles' runners with more scoring chances.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Michael Pittman (436 rushing yards, 300 receiving yards and three TDs)
7. J.J. Arrington, Arizona
He was given the chance to be a full-time back early in the season, but was so disoriented and ineffective that he was relegated to the bench. The diminutive rookie learned quickly that the big openings found in soft Pac-10 defenses are no preparation for the physical and quick NFL defenses. Dancing in the backfield won't work in the pros, especially with questionable offensive lines. As the season progressed, he became more decisive with his runs in limited chances. He averaged 2.3 yards in his first two months, but produced a better 3.7 average in the last nine games. That comes with experience and confidence. Look for Arrington to make a greater impact in his second year. Once he proves he can be effective, expect the Cards to run more. He'll still likely share running back duties with questions about handling the full-time chores. Watch out for Michael Bennett, though. A free agent, he has ties with former Vikings coach Dennis Green when he was drafted No. 1 under his watch.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Greg Jones (575 yards and four TDs)
8. Michael Bennett, Minnesota
This disappointing former first-rounder has the speed and quickness to shine, but lacks the consistency and vision at times to be a star. However, former coach Dennis Green wanted to trade for Bennett last season, looking to match his prior success with him. If he signs with the Cards, Green will be looking to rekindle Bennett's best season of 2002 under his guidance. He ran for 1,296 yards for an impressive 5.1 yards per carry, caught 37 passes for 357 yards and scored six touchdowns. There are many ifs, but Bennett may succeed in the right conditions.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Kevan Barlow (581 rushing yards, 241 receiving yards and three TDs)
9. Cedric Benson, Chicago
Sitting out nearly the entire preseason in a 36-day holdout, Benson struggled in his rookie season. Jones is still Chicago's No. 1 back, but an injury or poor play would likely put Benson in the driver's seat as the featured back. Benson should improve significantly with a full off-season and preseason to prepare.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Marion Barber (538 yards and five TDs)
10. Onterrio Smith, Minnesota
Not surprisingly, Michael Bennett has likely worn out his welcome in Minnesota. Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason lack the power of Smith and are more suited for passing downs. New coach Brad Childress may be looking for a clone of Brian Westbrook. But Smith matches Westbrook's explosiveness and talent more than Moore and Fason. If the Vikings decide not to draft a top running back early, then Smith has the talent to be a fantasy factor. Avoid drafting Smith, though, if the Vikes go with a top prospect like DeAngelo Williams, Laurence Moreny or LenDale White in the first round.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Marion Barber (538 rushing yards and five touchdowns)
11. Chester Taylor, Baltimore
After a contentious season with coach Brian Billick and lackluster efforts, Jamal Lewis is not expected to re-sign with the Ravens. Baltimore may opt to draft one of the top available rookie running backs. If it doesn't, though, Taylor has shown he could be productive with a solid offensive line. He averaged 91 rushing yards for a high 4.9 average in his six best games of '04, including four starts. Last season, despite Baltimore's struggles, Taylor averaged 4.2 yards compared to Lewis' 3.4. At his size, Taylor may be most effective as part of a platoon at running back, complementing a more physical runner.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Kevan Barlow (581 yards and three TDs)
Who will become the 2006 Chris Chambers, T.J. Houshmanzadeh or Antonio Bryant?
1. Brandon Lloyd, San Francisco
If given an effective quarterback, Lloyd could join the 1,000-yard receiver club. This depends on the development of second-year quarterback Alex Smith. He's likely to improve under experienced Ron Turner's guidance and full off-season of preparation. Lloyd has the speed, hands and skills to be San Francisco's No. 1 receiver and take advantage of Turner's vertical offense.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Randy Moss (60 catches for 1,005 yards and eight TDs)
2. Reggie Brown, Philadelphia
This rookie led the Eagles in receiving with 571 yards and four touchdowns, Terrell Owens notwithstanding. He showed chemistry with Donovan McNabb by catching five passes for 94 yards in Week 9, including a 56-yard touchdown catch. Impressively, Brown also had big plays with inexperienced quarterback Mike McMahon, catching passes of 22 (TD), 44 and 22 yards in their first game together. Brown put an exclamation mark on his rookie season by catching seven passes for 77 yards and two scores (33, 8) against the stiff Redskins secondary. Expect Brown to be Philly's No. 1 receiver.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Donte' Stallworth (70 catches for 945 yards and seven TDs)
3. Ernest Wilford, Jacksonville
While the highly-touted, underdeveloping former first-rounder Reggie Williams resided on the bench, fellow second-year receiver Wilford broke through with 681 yards and seven touchdowns. As No. 1 receiver Jimmy Smith's skills keep declining, Wilford will continue to rapidly improve, making a push to be the Jaguars' featured wideout. He registered two 100-yard games with different quarterbacks and led the Jaguars with seven receiving touchdowns. While the explosive Matt Jones will be the big-play receiver, Wilford will be the consistent possession wideout who offers steadiness and scoring ability.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Kevin Curtis (60 catches for 801 yards and six TDs)
4. Doug Gabriel, Oakland
Despite making only two starts compared to 15 for Jerry Porter, Gabriel had the same number of 100-yard games (2) and had a higher single-game reception mark (8 to 7). Gabriel flashed his potential in the season finale, catching a season-high eight passes for 100 yards. Gabriel could play a larger role as Oakland's No. 3 receiver and could rival Porter for the No. 2 slot if the position opens for competition.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Ernest Wilford (41 catches for 681 yards and seven TDs)
5. Roddy White, Atlanta
The rookie was Atlanta's most explosive receiver with a 15.4 average. He had only the second 100-yard receiving game of the season by an Atlanta wideout; Brian Finneran had the other. Look for White to make a big jump in his second season and develop a better rapport with Michael Vick.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Brandon Lloyd (48 catches for 733 yards and five TDs)
6. Drew Carter, Carolina
He flourished down the stretch, outgaining No. 2 receiver Keary Colbert in the last six games (including the postseason). He caught nine catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns, compared to Colbert's five catches for 51 yards. As the starter, Colbert had three games of zero catches during that span. Both in their second season, Colbert has regressed while Carter has progressed. Carter offers better speed and is more dangerous than Colbert. Exploiting single coverage deep, he connected for passes of 40, 32 (TD), 47 (TD) and 41 yards. Expect Carter to be Carolina's No. 2 receiver next season, complementing Steve Smith better. Colbert flourished in his rookie season when Smith was out with an injury. He struggles with Smith as the team's No. 1 wideout.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Brandon Lloyd (48 catches for 733 yards and five TDs)
7. Mark Clayton, Baltimore
If Kyle Boller continues to progress, second-year vet Clayton stands to benefit. When Boller made his second-half surge last season, the rookie wideout averaged 6.3 catches for 94 yards and scored twice in three of the last five games. He showed he could be a productive fantasy receiver with solid quarterback play. Supported by proven No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason who attracts attention, Clayton can exploit single coverage.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Drew Bennett (58 catches for 738 yards and four TDs)
8. Samie Parker, Kansas City
A full season of starting as the Chiefs' No. 2 wideout will boost Parker's stats alone. He's entering his third season where some wideouts make a sizeable jump. The Chiefs' offense promises to be one of the league's best again. Add a powerful running attack led by MVP candidate Larry Johnson to complement one of the league's better quarterbacks Trent Green, and Kansas City wideouts will have single matchups and openings to exploit downfield.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Eric Parker (57 catches for 723 yards and three TDs)
9. Bernard Berrian, Chicago
Since Mark Bradley is recovering from a torn ACL, Berrian is most likely to start opposite Muhsin Muhammad on Opening Day. He's the deep threat to stretch defenses in Ron Turner's vertical passing attack. He posted his two best games of the season with Rex Grossman as the starter. He averaged four catches for 81 yards, building a foundation for next season. He'll receive many chances downfield with defenses geared to stop the run.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Justin McCareins (43 catches for 713 yards and two TDs)
10. Courtney Roby, Tennessee
Tennessee's most successful rookie receiver, Brandon Jones, is recovering from a partially torn ACL. He had surgery in December and will likely require at least nine months of rehab, making him unlikely to be ready for training camp. He will trail Roby and Roydell Williams initially in conditioning and strength. This gives Roby a head start and might be enough to make him Tennessee's No. 2 receiver, competing with Williams. Roby flashed his potential by catching seven passes for 83 yards and one touchdown in his first start.
Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of: Reggie Brown (43 catches for 571 yards and four TDs)
Not a bad article, but I got a chuckle out of some of the "Projected 2006 stats similar to '05 stats of:" comparisons. For instance, some of the up and coming QBs are compared to Jake Plummer and Gus Frerotte. Who wants those stiffs on their fantasy roster? How many people rode those guys to league championships last year? Couldn't have been many. While I'm sure there were a few isolated examples, they were hardly the guys you wanted leading your fantasy team.
He also compares some of the up and coming RBs to Kevan Barlow and WRs to the Brandon Lloyd, Eric Parker and Justin McCareins of 2005 - you'd be hard-pressed to find a single championship roster with one of those guys on it!